Published on
18 May 2020

Local authority children’s services have been reduced to crisis-driven firefighting as a result of years of under investment. This has left them ill-prepared to cope with the torrent of extra challenges presented by the coronavirus lockdown, a report by the UK’s largest children’s charities warns today.

New analysis by The Children’s Society, Barnardo’s, Action for Children, NSPCC and the National Children’s Bureau reveals the true impact of a toxic cocktail of cuts and a soaring demand for help.

Over the last decade local authority budgets have been so squeezed that councils can only afford to get involved when children have reached crisis point and need costly interventions, like being taken into care.

Now the charities are deeply concerned about how these already overstretched services will cope after the coronavirus crisis, with a crippling spike in demand expected, as the true extent of the devastation caused by the pandemic becomes apparent.

It is feared even more children and families, ‘hidden’ from the view of professionals during the lockdown, could slip through the cracks, doomed to reach crisis point before any help is provided.

Councils are in a Catch 22 situation because while they know the best long term option is to invest in early intervention services, like children’s centres and youth workers, they cannot afford to do this.

Instead they are spending a greater proportion of available funding on children in crisis today.

  • Available funding for children’s services has fallen by £2.2 billion between 2010/11 and 2018/19 so they simply cannot afford to pay for early intervention services, leading to spending on early help dropping by almost half (46%) during this period.
  • At the start of the decade, late intervention, including child protection teams and youth justice services,  accounted for 58% of local authority spending on children and young people’s services. This had risen to 78% by 2018/19.
  • The biggest increase in spending was for services for children in care, soaring by 40% from 2010/11 to 2018/19.

The report finds councils have had to make difficult spending decisions to bridge the gap between the funding they have available and what they need in order to keep services going.

  • They are doing this by reallocating funds from other budgets and this has led to them being able to partially plug the funding gap, with spending on children’s services only falling by £536 million (a six per cent reduction) between 2010/11 and 2018/19.

But the leading children’s charities warn this is not sustainable in the long run – and some local authorities were already spending reserves in order to support children’s services provision.

The charities say the Government must help local authorities by injecting funds to repair the children’s social care system.

This will allow them to be able to afford preventative early intervention services like family support and children’s centres. And, by doing so, fewer families will reach crisis point and so they will have to spend less on costly late intervention work.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said: “We have long warned about the 'perfect storm' facing children's social care, and the gap between demand and resource will widen further as a result of coronavirus.

"Even before the lockdown children were facing growing challenges, from knife crime and gangs, to cyberbullying and online grooming. Now there is a new wave of ‘hidden’ children, falling into poverty, experiencing domestic abuse and tipping the existing crisis in mental health into catastrophe.

“We know there will be a massive increase in demand for support, with the effects of the pandemic felt for years to come. But the overstretched system cannot cope, and the Government must step in to fund vital early intervention services, so families get the help they need before reaching crisis point.

"But it is not simply about money - we need to spend resources wisely. This is why Barnardo’s is taking a radical new approach - working with national and local partners and investing our own resource to co-design and deliver services that change children’s lives, and the system around them, for the better.”

Deputy chief executive at Action for Children, Carol Iddon, said: “The coronavirus crisis has exploded into the lives of vulnerable families after a decade of decline in available funding for services that protect children from harm.

“It would be dangerously irresponsible to have an NHS with only A&E departments but no GPs, no cancer screening services and no public health education – yet this kind of short-sightedness is what we’re facing in children’s services. A system geared only for crisis, guarantees more children will end up in crisis. And we’re here because for ten long years councils have been backed into an ever-tighter corner, with no choice but to abandon early help services that stop family problems like domestic abuse or neglect from spiralling.

“We risk being unprepared for the fallout for families from the coronavirus crisis. The right thing to do for children - and the smart thing to do for public finances - is for the government to invest in early help services now, to stem the torrent of children being taken into care and reverse the ballooning financial and social cost of years of under investment.”

The Children’s Society Chief Executive, Mark Russell, said: “Even before the current crisis, we were gravely concerned that the huge funding shortfall facing local government would leave ever more vulnerable children in danger.

“Now, the risks children continue to face inside and outside the home may be hidden from the view of professionals until the lockdown is lifted. Councils may  then face a perfect storm of soaring demand to support young people amid massive new financial pressures.

“They desperately need extra funding from the government to support these children and rebuild early intervention services to ensure many more young people get help before they reach crisis point.”

Anna Feuchtwang, Chief Executive of the National Children’s Bureau, said: “Children’s services, left reeling from a decade of cuts, now have to meet the complex extra needs of children and families brought on by the pandemic, pushing the whole system of support further towards breaking point.

“In this climate, children’s social care is rapidly becoming a bare bones service that only responds in emergencies.

“The government must act and give local authorities the funding they need to help children before their problems escalate.”

NSPCC’s Chief Executive, Peter Wanless, said: “For a decade, local authorities have balanced reductions in funding against the growing costs of placing more children in increasingly expensive residential provision by reducing other services and shifting resources to plug gaps.

“This was not sustainable before the coronavirus crisis and the impact of the pandemic and lockdown on children means it cannot continue. We need a new approach.

“The government must take the opportunity of the spending round to set out a plan for investment in children services that will deliver the evidence-based interventions that can make all the difference for children and families, giving them the platform they need to have happy and fulfilling lives.”   

Appendix - Research from councils

Staff from three councils across England were interviewed for the report and spoke about the difficult decisions they are having to make.

One worker, with over 10 years experience, said: “I've never seen the type of need from some of our families that we’re seeing now.”

Another said: “We’ve got a declining overall budget at a time when demand is significantly increasing.  So what the council’s then faced with is with the choices of you're starting to get into the statutory and non-statutory services and obviously it's the non-statutory services that start to go but as you get smaller and smaller it becomes increasingly difficult to cut the non-statutory services.”

“When you put those choices forward then you have to be very clear as to what the consequences are and then do you try and protect children’s, or do you try and protect social care, or do you close this or stop doing that? Those are the choices that have to be made.”

One staff member spoke about problems with the way they have juggled budgets to keep children’s services running: “What we can't keep on doing is we've just kept on saying demand’s gone up again, so we need to find some money, we’ll use one off resources and then our savings target just keeps increasing.  We can't keep doing that you know year on year because the reserves will run out.”

Notes to editors

Methodology for the reports

To provide an estimate of available government funding for children and young people’s services we have used core spending power. This is detailed through the Local Government Finance Settlement published by the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG).

To produce figures about the spending on children and young people’s services we have reviewed publicly available section 251 data published by the Department for Education (DfE).

In our analysis about spending on early and late intervention we have taken a broad approach to defining early intervention, incorporating some universal and targeted services.

Early intervention funding covers spending on services that seek to work with children at a lower level of need. This includes:

• Children’s centres and other early years services: This includes local authority spending on the management of children’s centres and delivery of their services. It does not include the early education free entitlement.

• Family support services: This includes targeted family support (such as intensive family interventions, home care and contributions to healthcare for children) and universal family support (for example, home-school liaison, peer to peer support services and relationship support).

• Services for young people: This includes targeted and universal services for young people, such as: youth work, activities for young people, services to support young people’s participation in education or training, student support, and preventative substance misuse and teenage pregnancy services.

Late intervention refers to those areas of spend primarily dealing with children who have reached a higher level of need. This includes:

• Youth Justice: This includes costs related to youth offending teams, secure accommodation and remand fostering costs.

• Children in care: this includes adoption and fostering services, residential care and cost of children leaving care.

• Child protection and safeguarding: this includes spending on local safeguarding children’s boards, functions under the child death review processes and social work.

To estimate spending per child we have used population estimates per local authority based on a single age from NOMIS.

Values have been adjusted to 2018/19 levels (‘real terms’) using the 'GDP Price Deflator', which measures the change in prices for all goods and services produced in the economy.